Was the 70th edition of La Vuelta the longest in its 80-year history? Or did it just feel that way?
Billed as a regulation 21-stage, three-week Grand Tour, this latest edition of the Spanish race resembled nothing more than a temporal anomaly.
The opening stage set the tone: a team time-trial in which the outcome had no bearing on the aggregate time of its individual competitors. “To GC or not to GC?” the organisers asked themselves, belatedly, having scheduled 7.4km of racing on a beach. They decided against.
Footage of Vincenzo Nibali’s disqualification a day later is like watching a newsreel, and not only for the speed of the action. So long ago does it seem, that Nibbles might blame his aberration on the over-excitement of the neo-pro.
The motos in the race convoy continued the Keystone Cops theme on stages eight and 11, though Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho struggled to see the amusing side.
Can so much incident have occurred before the race had begun in earnest? Chris Froome’s capitulation on stage 11 now seems like a moment from a bygone age. By this stage, the withdrawal of the pre-race favourite was barely worthy of comment, and in hindsight seems longer ago than his victory in Paris.
Joaquim Rodriguez might have been forgotten during the Vuelta’s opening week, but clambered into the spotlight just when the coronation of Fabio Aru had seemed inevitable, after the young Italian had wrested the red jersey from the shoulders of Tom Dumoulin.
Ah, yes: Tom Dumoulin, the time-trial specialist reinvented as Grand Tour contender. The Butterfly of Maastricht emerged from the chrysalis of enforced recovery following his entanglement in the massive crash on stage three of the Tour de France to contest La Vuelta’s mountain stages. Few sights in this never-ending, roller coaster Vuelta were as surreal as watching Dumoulin chase down Esteban Chaves, like some irate parent pursuing an errant child.
Aru might have considered the Butterfly crushed beneath his wheels after four straight days in red, only for Purito to emerge, stage left, to win stage 15 and, a day later, to steal the Italian’s red tunic.
Surely there could be no more twists? An audience struggling to keep up with the wonderfully tangled, endless spectacle being played out on Spanish roads might have been forgiven for covering their eyes as Dumoulin thundered towards the finish line of the stage 17 time-trial in Burgos, and back to the top of the GC.
Aru was not finished however. Attacking on the penultimate stage of the race, the rider appointed Astana’s leader after the disqualification of Nibali seemingly six months earlier, raced with the zeal of a man keen to have things wrapped up by Christmas.
His entry to Madrid a day later might have felt like stepping from a time warp, or another dimension. The sheer volume of drama twisted the fabric of space-time, in Spain at least, distorting perception of La Vuelta into one endless ascent towards an unreachable vanishing point. Or was that merely the Queen stage?
One thing’s for certain, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. We declared La Vuelta the best of the three Grand Tours in recent years some weeks ago. Foresight or hindsight? With this Vuelta, it’s impossible to tell. In some hidden corner of Spain, it may still be continuing.
STAT’S THE WAY, UH HUH, UH HUH
23 days – the total duration, including rest days, of the 2015 Vuelta a España
223 days – the temporal sensation created by the density of drama contained within
7 – the number of holders of the race leader’s red jersey
2 – the number of holders of the King of the Mountains jersey (chapeau, Omar Fraile, holder from stage three to 21)
YOUTUBE THROWBACK – WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SPECIAL
“Right, I’m off”. Oscar Freire takes matters into his own hands
“Right, I’m off”. Cadel Evans takes matters into his own hands
“Right, I’m off”. Philippe Gilbert takes matters into his own hands